Saturday, November 27, 2004

Answers to tough PJ questions

One of this blog's readers asked some questions for her college research. I think many readers would like to know the answers. Like many bright, young PJs, she's trying to estimate the landscape before she leaves academia.

Basically, the PJ landscape is made of gelatin nowadays. For a new PJ who has a good eye, a strong knowledge of photography techniques, enjoys the biz side and loves adventure, the future looks bright. For the rest, it's bleak.

Even for the best photographers, PJ is an eat-you-up-and-spit-you-out profession. Those who aren't ready for this reality are heading toward hardship and heartache. Her questions and my answers should sum up the major aspects of consideration.

Start-up costs
Q) I'm trying to get an idea about set-up costs. You mentioned that an aspiring PJ should get $20K and meet you on Monday with equipment from your list. I laughed at first, but then I realized that you probably weren't kidding. So, I'd like to know what basic equipment a PJ needs, and what would be a minimum ball-park cost.

A) For a pro, the list is about the minimum. I just bought a dit (high-end digital camera) this week. I got a bargain at $1,500 (it should go for about $3,200). The top-of-the-line body costs more.

Although a 50mm lens is cheap (about $200), most other lenses are in the $1,500 to $4k range. A PJ must have three basic lenses - a 50mm, a 17~35mm and a 80~200mm. All of these must be f/2.8 or faster. I strongly encourage an additional 300mm (f/2.8) or longer lens as well as a micro/macro lens.

Flashes are cheap, about $300-500 each. A decent strobe with all the proper gizmos and gadgets can set someone back $2k to $10k. The remote transceivers are about $180 each (PJs need at least a transmitter and two receivers or three transceivers).

Since staff jobs are almost impossible for new grads, a Mac laptop with a wireless transmitter is also required (about another $1k or more). Then the PJ needs a monopod, tripod, synch cords, a camera bag, some filters, light stands, etc...

Yes, $20k is the starting point.

Since the holiday gift-giving season is coming, parents need to be reminded what their little PJs need. ;-)

Q) What types of projects/genres can a PJ specialize? I've checked out your section on "Pro Photographer's sites" and found that some of the PJs photograph weddings, news, sports, war and nature. At what point does a PJ become a photographer? I loved David and Kim's site, but wondered if their pictures of flowers qualified as PJ pictures.

A) Good eye. David won the Pulitzer Prize this year while covering the war in Iraq. He also won the Lone Star Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary Program this year for his documentary "War Stories."

PJs are visual chameleons. Rather than specializing, we diversify. David is a good example. Most PJs are fairly smart and get bored easily. So, we do something for a while until we master it. Then we try something new. It doesn't mean we ever stop doing the first specialization, we simply add to our toolbox.

In our daily work, we're expected to know how to handle anything. We cover almost every sub-genre of photography - often in the same day. If it's a new technology (like dit cameras or digital video were), we're given a day to figure it out and then expected to master it.

Because newspaper readers are as diverse as the community, we try to keep everyone happy. Gardeners want to know about flowers, so we photograph flowers. Entomologists want to know about bugs, so we photograph butterflies. If we can get both in one frame, we just made two people happy as well as provided some variety for all the readers.

PJs are PJs as long as they have notepads. Photographers aren't responsible for reporting (or even photographing) facts. Photojournalism is a marriage of truthful words and images. We must collect visual, factual information as well as the words placed near our photographs. We must also condense these facts down to one image and two sentences (a cutline).

If I make an image because it's important to me, I'm a photographer. Anyone can be a photographer. If I know why I made the image, the subject's proper name and all the facts surrounding the image, and I make an image because it's important to the readers, then I'm a PJ.

Each person who knows how to wield a hammer cannot make a violin.

PJ schools
Q) Do you recommend any particular schools for PJ preparation?

A) Ohio University, Western Kentucky, Missouri and Brooks have strong PJ programs lately. However, the school doesn't make the student. The student makes the education.

Most of the top-level PJs actually come from different backgrounds (electrical engineering, languages, philosophy, political science and business majors). They all have well-rounded educations and are typically in the top of their class academically (because they understand everything is important). A 3.5 or higher GPA is the norm.

Q) What are starting salary ranges for small/large newspapers?

A) We don't do this for the money.

People who love money should get into banking. People who love photos should get into commercial photography. People who love poverty and near-death experiences should get into PJ.

Starting salaries in PJ are $25. Oh, you meant per/year. OK, $25. Freelancers earn by the assignment or image. Their income is determined by their own motivation, energy, talent and biz sense.

There is no adequate way to compare fruit and flamingos. Use this calculator to get market comparisons. I'm using Dallas numbers, and you can adjust from there.

Realistically, a GREAT college photographer could make about $12k-$20k p/yr at their first small daily/weekly staff job.

Let's see here... equipment costs $20k, education was another $60k, but I'm earning $12k... this means I'll need to live in a box and forage for food for the first few years... Yup! Sign me up. :-)

Once a PJ has several years of experience and some major awards, they can move up into the major metro daily papers and get about $30k.

At the biggest papers with all the bells and whistles (car, phone and equipment allowances and after-market sharing), they could get $50k or slightly more.

Having given the depressing part of this story, the up-side is freelance and awards. This is what actually keeps some PJs at a decent standard of living. Well... and wealthy relatives...

Some photo awards come with hefty cash prizes (Pulitzer, World Press Photo and other international awards). Otherwise, a high-end PJ can earn $5k or more for a single day shooting a wedding (including all the additional preparation and delivery work). Low-end PJs can still earn $250 p/hour shooting "events" for the event organizer (public relations).

Moonlight work is dangerous though. First, at small papers, editors may call the PJ from a freelance gig to cover something for the community. Then, there's the potential of stepping over an ethical boundary and having a conflict of interest (working for a politician for example). However, most PJs know the line and won't cross it. More often, there's the lure of crossing to the "dark side" (making a real living).

Some staffers make more income from shooting weddings than from the newspaper. They use the staff job to promote their talent and leverage their name to get a regular freelance clientele. Then, they can eventually walk away to a lucrative new career. Everyone must find their own tipping point.

Important note: The junior PJs tend to work on weekends while some senior PJs get the wedding gigs. In other words, when a PJ makes it to the big time, there's still a long way to go. If PJs make it to the very top, they'll be in conflict areas and won't have time to arrange weddings. So again I'll say, don't get in this for the money.

Enough for now,


rannie said...

Wonderful article Mark.

Very discouraging, but I suppose if you have the drive, than anything is possible. At least I am slow but surely building up my equipment list.

Mark M. Hancock said...

I keep trying to talk people off the ledge, but more keep running onto it.

Michael Rubenstein said...


You can't scare us Mark. You know the more you tell us not to do it, the faster we run towards that cliff. Lemmings with nice glass. That's what we are good sir!

Hope you're doing well. I'm sitting in the Vegas airport waiting on a flight to St. Louis to start my first round of grad school interviews. WISH ME LUCK!


Mark M. Hancock said...

If you must. BTW, there is still a HUGE cash reward offered for anyone who can get an authentic image of lemmings jumping into the sea.